This will be a quick update, because it’s again well after midnight, and my body is telling me that it’s fed up with my late-night writing sessions. Last night I stayed up until 4 a.m. writing about my rediscovery of music. There’s no telling when creative inspiration will strike, but I am going to start begging the muse to visit me at a reasonable hour. The chest pains and tightness that I’ve experienced on and off for the better part of this year have plagued me consistently this week. Even though I tell myself that no activity — not even learning a cool new song on guitar — is worth putting my body through the wringer, I get into a trance while on the computer late at night. One of these days, I will learn to like sleeping. Ever since I was a baby, I’ve always preferred to be awake and doing things to going to bed. It may be time to for another mandatory Day of Doing Nothing.
One note: While I was at my elementary school, I refrained from using its name to maintain a bit of anonymity. However, there’s no mystery about what middle school I’d attended because there was only one in town at the time I was a preteen, and its name was also emblazoned on my P.E. shirt. I’ve been calling the middle school by name, Altimira, and from now on, I’ll do the same for my elementary school, El Verano.
Monday was a Teacher Workday, where the students get the day off and the teachers participate in all-day workshops. As a kid, I’d wondered what the teachers did during this time, and I may never know what they did then; I imagine that it has changed significantly with the standardized testing frenzy imposed by No Child Left Behind. Altimira teachers spent Monday morning developing a plan for students to learn “academic vocabulary” (words like “contrast” and “analyze”), and for low-achieving students in strategic intervention classes to perform well enough not to need the classes next year. The afternoon portion — which I didn’t attend — focused on gang awareness, a training that schools are required to offer annually.
A few weeks ago, I’d dropped in on a teacher training day at the elementary school, and it raised similar questions for me about whether all the rubrics and benchmarks and research-based strategies so commonly used in today’s schools are really helping kids learn and teachers teach. My feeling is that the most helpful type of training would develop teachers’ instincts (so they know how to adapt to whatever situation might arise), encourage them to share their passion as they do best, and introduce them to potentially helpful resources. It’s frustrating for me to observe teachers spending most of a full day figuring out how to meet standards and raise scores, when they could instead be developing activities that would engage their students and excitedly discussing innovative educational methods.
I want to be clear about not blaming the administration or staff for requiring trainings that include wading through checklists and packets of learning objectives. At many public schools, including El Verano and Altimira, the principals would much rather be focusing on how to foster kids’ and teachers’ love of learning. Unfortunately, they are bound by the strings attached to the school’s funding — funding that depends on achieving highly on the standardized tests. If they don’t meet the often unreasonable demands imposed by the state and federal government, they risk losing money for certain programs, and even for their operating costs. If they want to ensure that the school stays open, they must do well on the tests. That’s why so much energy is channeled toward scoring highly during “those two weeks in May,” as some teachers call the intensive period of STAR (California state) testing in reading and math.
I hope to write more on the widespread practice of standardized testing, because I believe that it’s responsible for many of the aspects of school that diminish the joy of education for both kids and teachers. Again, I am not pointing the finger at schools for this. Almost every teacher and local administrator I’ve spoken with about it resent the tests themselves.
As always, I want to capture everything that I’ve experienced so far in middle school, but my slow pace of writing can’t keep up with the rate at which I’m generating material. To be able to share more as I go along, I’m going to experiment with lists in bulleted form. Here are a few highlights from my first week of middle school.
- Eating the same type of deli turkey sandwich on French bread that the lunch counter sold back in my day.
I think those sandwiches are responsible for my little sister‘s passionate hatred of mayonnaise, given the globs laden on the sandwiches that used to squirt out of the sides of the bread. My sandwich last week actually tasted great, its bread and turkey fresh, and its mayo now in proportion. Disappointingly, the cafeteria had run out of burritos from La Casa, a local Mexican restaurant, which I remember as being delicious. I hope to get one tomorrow. I’m stunned at how inexpensive the food is — $0.75 for half a cream cheese bagel, $2.50 for the most quality sandwiches and burritos. I’m used to paying three times as much for similar items in San Francisco cafes and airports.
- Watching a lunchtime activity put on by the leadership class.
Being shy and awkward as a middle schooler, I would have been mortified to participate in one of these activities. In a flat concrete area overlooking the quad, pairs of kids volunteered to wheelbarrow race against each other. The partner being wheelbarrowed (walking on her hands while her partner held her legs) had to draw a smiley face with a marker on paper, then line up a row of M&Ms with her nose, then run to the finish line. Even now, I can’t stand doing this type of activity, but the kids seemed to find it entertaining.
The girl on the megaphone looked old enough to be a teacher, but she was an eighth grader. This reminded me that middle schoolers find themselves in such varied stages of development. It was fascinating to see Jane, my sixth grade guide, who still looks like a little girl, next to one of her tall, curvy friends who could have been in high school.
- Eating lunch in the middle of two different groups of girls.
As I followed Jane out of fourth period and out to lunch, a couple of girls began to chat with me as and one asked eagerly, “Do you want to eat lunch with us?” I said, “Sure!” and turned to Jane to ask, “Where should we all sit?” I’d expected that we could all eat together, but I should have known that Jane and the two girls hung out with two different crowds who wouldn’t dream of randomly sitting together. It would just be weird. Though she’s a somewhat peripheral and quiet presence in the group, Jane is part of the popular crowd, whereas the other two girls classify themselves as “sort of popular” or “in the middle.” So I planted myself squarely between the two groups and tried to chat with both, jumping between conversations, which I found difficult. Both groups of girls told me that while people are aware of who’s popular in sixth grade, it’s not that big a deal. A few kids do get picked on, and everyone gossips about everyone else, but it’s not a huge deal if you’re not in the popular crowd. Even so, with all the effort it took to figure out the sixth grade social landscape, I felt relieved not to have to worry about popularity anymore.
Tomorrow I start seventh grade. Whereas my sixth grade guide was a top student from a seemingly traditional Asian family, my seventh grade buddy will be an English Language Learner for whom school is reportedly a little more challenging. As usual, I hope that the kids will accept me as one of them and that I’ll have people to eat lunch with. At least I know that my sixth grade buddies, both groups of them, would be happy to have me back anytime.